NixOS on a Dell XPS15 9560

Foreword

From a several months now, I have been using NixOS, as much for personal stuff than for work.

In particular, its declarative and reproducible system configuration allows me to have a GitHub repository, Pamplemousse/laptop, “representing” what the software setup of my machine is.

The idea with this is being able to automate the installation of my computer, easing the pain of installing and setting up a new machine.

I am not at all an expert in system administration, and this “project” is far from being mature, but this had done the job so far.

Until…

One day, I received a Dell XPS15 9560 which I needed to setup, thus I wanted to install NixOS on it.

It was painful ; but I realized I was not the only one running into trouble installing Linux on this machine: see this comparative result on the installation of several distributions.

Among the bit that caused me much trouble:

• Move from MBR/BIOS to GPT/UEFI 1;
• LUKS encryption;
• Machine freezing, very likely due to the nouveau, and bbswitch modules for Nvidia graphic card.

Miraculously, I discovered two blog posts that literally saved my day (or shall I say my week):

Thus, this post stands on their shoulders and comes essentially as a wrap up of the work they have provided.

Full disk encryption

I don’t think we can make these devices harder to lose; that’s a human problem and not a technological one. But we can make the loss just cost money, not privacy. 2

Solution: use Luks to encrypt partitions ; Here is what the partitioning looks like.

1. /dev/sda1: BIOS
2. /dev/sda2: EFI
3. /dev/sda3, /dev/mapper/cryptkey: LUKS key
4. /dev/sda4, /dev/mapper/cryptswap: swap partition
5. /dev/sda5, /dev/mapper/cryptroot: root filesystem

Why this partitioning?

We want the swap partition to be encrypted not to leak the RAM content on hibernation.

For user-friendliness, we create a partition /dev/mapper/cryptkey that will be used as a keyfile to unlock both the swap (/dev/mapper/cryptswap) and the root (/dev/mapper/cryptroot) partitions. This keyfile will then be encrypted using a user passphrase.

Hence, a passphrase will be asked only once, to decrypt the keyfile, which will then be used to decrypt the swap and root partitions.

And if /dev/mapper/cryptkey gets corrupted?

As is, that would mean that the swap and root partitions would be lost. For the latter one, that is very bad: all data on the root partition (system and user data) would then be inaccessible.

One solution is to create a random passphrase (not meant to be remembered by yourself, that you store securely store elsewhere), and then allow it to decrypt the root partition.

Here is how we proceeded:

Note that some space is left at the beginning of the disk for the GPT to take place. 3

# partitioning
DISK=/dev/sda
sgdisk -og "$DISK" sgdisk -n 1:2048:4095 -c 1:"BIOS boot partition" -t 1:ef02 "$DISK"
sgdisk -n 2:0:+550MiB -c 2:"EFI system partition" -t 2:ef00 "$DISK" sgdisk -n 3:0:+3MiB -c 3:"cryptsetup luks key" -t 3:8300 "$DISK"
sgdisk -n 4:0:+"${RAM}"GiB -c 4:"swap space (hibernation)" -t 4:8300 "$DISK"
sgdisk -n 5:0:"$(sgdisk -E "$DISK")" -c 5:"root filesystem" -t 5:8300 "$DISK" # encrypting cryptsetup luksFormat "${DISK}3"
cryptsetup luksOpen "${DISK}3" cryptkey dd if=/dev/random of=/dev/mapper/cryptkey bs=1024 count=14000 cryptsetup luksFormat --key-file=/dev/mapper/cryptkey "${DISK}4"

cryptsetup luksFormat "${DISK}5" cryptsetup luksAddKey "${DISK}5" /dev/mapper/cryptkey

# labeling, mounting and generating the base config
cryptsetup luksOpen --key-file=/dev/mapper/cryptkey "${DISK}4" cryptswap mkswap -L swap /dev/mapper/cryptswap swapon /dev/disk/by-label/swap cryptsetup luksOpen --key-file=/dev/mapper/cryptkey "${DISK}5" cryptroot
mkfs.ext4 -L nixos /dev/mapper/cryptroot
mount /dev/disk/by-label/nixos /mnt

mkfs.vfat -n efi "\${DISK}2"
mkdir /mnt/boot
mount /dev/disk/by-label/efi /mnt/boot

nixos-generate-config --root /mnt


And what the NixOS configuration looks like:

We created an extra file called /etc/nixos/luks-devices-configuration.nix, containing the following:

{
boot.initrd.luks.devices = {
cryptkey = {
device = "/dev/sda3";
};

cryptroot = {
device = "/dev/sda5";
keyFile = "/dev/mapper/cryptkey";
};

cryptswap = {
device = "/dev/sda4";
keyFile = "/dev/mapper/cryptkey";
};
};
}


And then, included it in the general /etc/nixos/configuration.nix file:

{ config, pkgs, ... }:

{
imports =
[ # Include the results of the hardware scan.
./hardware-configuration.nix
./luks-devices-configuration.nix
];

# ...
}


Machine freezing

As mentioned earlier in the post, I experienced many freezes of the laptop, and adopted the solution proposed in jtanguy.cleverapps.io/installing-nixos-on-a-xps-9560 by adding the following to my /etc/nixos/configuration.nix:

boot.blacklistedKernelModules = [ "nouveau" "bbswitch" ];
boot.extraModulePackages = [ pkgs.linuxPackages.nvidia_x11 ];

hardware.bumblebee.enable = true;
hardware.bumblebee.pmMethod = "none";


Conclusion

My GitHub repository Pamplemousse/laptop should contain the most up-to-date state of my configuration.

However, it does not concern specifically the Dell XPS15 9560, and not all that I have presented here is merged into the master branch (in particular the Kernel modules blacklisting or the bumblebee configuration). Despite, missing pieces can be found in the test branch of the same repository.

Warning / Need to be improved

It is worth nothing as I do not run these script as is.

So far, my work on this repository is actually more about having handful “templates” and/or bits of configuration to speed-up my laptop’s installation rather than having “production ready” autonomous scripts that have been thoroughly tested.

Some areas of improvements that are worth mentioning:

• Install script, pay attention to what is generated in /etc/nixos/hardware-configuration.nix and what might overwrite stuff from the /etc/nixos/luks-devices-configuration.nix during the configuration generation;
• /boot being located on /dev/sda2 is not encrypted.

Aside from that, I am happy now that my laptop is functional! (Pun intended.)

1. MBR, BIOS, GPT, UEFI definitions: https://wiki.manjaro.org/index.php?title=Some_basics_of_MBR_v/s_GPT_and_BIOS_v/s_UEFI

2. GUID Partition Table: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/GUID_Partition_Table